Whether they realize it or not, millions of headbangers around the world have paid tribute to the late great Ronnie James Dio every time they raise their index and small fingers in the infamous “metal horns” salute at a concert.
While he is widely credited with the invention (or, at the very least, popularization) of the iconic heavy metal music symbol, the Black Sabbath, Rainbow, and Dio vocalist never really fit the typical metal celebrity’s mold of debauchery and hedonism. While many future stars were learning to smoke and pissing off their parents by listening to Elvis, Dio preferred opera. When fellow band mates were getting loaded and banging groupies backstage, he could often be found on the phone with his wife or signing autographs late into the night.
As someone very close to Dio during those crazy years recently told me, family and fans were the rock star’s true passions.
“He really CARED about things,” my source told me during an interview. “He would stay after shows out by the tour bus to meet those that weren’t lucky enough to score a backstage pass, and he would sign their CDs and other stuff they brought for hours on end. He was a total gentleman, no matter how late it got or even if he was under the weather, which happened more than anyone would like to admit.”
When Dio passed away on May 16, 2010 from stomach cancer, he not only left behind a legacy of great music, but a lifetime of charity work and dedication to help the underdog, including the Children of the Night organization he worked very closely with.
Not surprisingly, the man behind the myth is often lost in the media hype. For instance, the notorious Westboro Baptist Church protested his funeral.
“The Westboro church protested across the street because of his reputation as a Satanist,” my source told me. “He was NOT! I think it is time the public knows what his true religious views were. It is quite simple; if anything, he was a Taoist. He believed in the good in everyone until they crossed him or someone else…no heaven or hell, and no Christian God. He had great respect for nature and humankind and the intrinsic worth of every human being on the planet. He viewed everyone as an equal, no matter how famous he got, and would openly say this when a fan was so nervous that he or she was shaking when they met him. He was humble to a fault. Even when he was complimented on what a great show he put on, he would tell the person that he messed up on certain things and then point them out.”
The man the world knew as Ronnie James Dio was born Ronald James Padanova in 1942. Without any formal musical training, his signature siren wail landed him a gig as vocalist with Ritchie Blackmore’s new band, Rainbow, in 1974. From there, he went on to his most famous stint as lead singer of Black Sabbath from 1979 until 1982. A successful solo career as frontman of his own band, Dio, dominated the 1980s and 90s, in addition to off-and-on reunions with the rest of Black Sabbath as the band Heaven and Hell from 2006 until his death.
“In all of those bands, the guys loved playing practical jokes on each other before a show, afterwards at the meet-and-greets backstage, or on the tour buses to amuse themselves. Everybody in Sabbath, Dio, or Heaven and Hell loved to laugh and have a good time. Jokes between friends were what it was all about. Of course, there was always plenty of wine and beer backstage, so sometimes things would get a bit to the absurd, but never too far out of line.
“He was very humble, and didn’t see himself as a ‘rock god’ at all. He was a passionate man that enjoyed everything he ever did. Making music was just something he LIKED to do. It was never a forced effort, or anything like what would be considered as a ‘job’; he would have done it whether he was famous or not, successful or not. That is how much he liked doing it. When you love what you do for a living it is not a job. You never work a day in your life!”
Dio believed in passing on a bit of that happiness he had found in the charities he became involved with, including cancer research organizations in his later years.
“He did a project back in the 80s called ‘Hear N Aid’ (metal’s answer to ‘Live Aid’). Everybody who was anybody at the time was in on this project. It raised at least a million dollars to feed hungry children, and adults in our own country where it was needed and appreciated.
“In the 80s, the Sunset Strip in L.A. was the place to be if you were a metalhead, rocker, performer, etc., but it was also riddled with young runaways that had to resort to prostitution to survive on the streets of L.A. Their lives were BRUTAL, and Ronnie helped set up a fund for an organization called Children of the Night. It was a place for those driven to that life to come and have a place to sleep, get fed, and be rehabilitated to become a successful part of society with a respectable job. It has changed the lives of thousands of kids, and is now very successful.
“When he passed on, there was an organization set up immediately called The Stand Up And Shout cancer research fund. This is to educate people that have a chance about early treatment of not only stomach cancer, but other types as well…knowledge is power…it pays to know early so that treatment is effective…cancer CAN be BEAT!
“These organizations are very successful at fulfilling their missions. One hundred percent of all donations are used for the greater good, not to pay administration and other costs.”
And in addition to a firm belief in making the world around him a better place, he was simply a man who was fun to be around.
“Not only was he very well respected in the music industry, he had friends in most every hard rock or metal band there was. Because of my association with him, I also got to meet almost everyone and I loved it. Most of them were really nice, down to earth people, just like you and me. Parties at the house were always tasteful, not the wild orgies that some people would expect at a rock star’s home.”
Speaking of his home life, I was surprised to hear just how “down to earth” he really was.
“He loved gardening, do-it-yourself projects, and cooking for family and friends. When he was not making music, he was always tending to the gardens and plants or in the kitchen whipping up some wonderful concoction. I remember once he was tending to the herb garden, and a rogue concrete garden gnome rolled down the hill and attacked him, slicing off his thumb, which he put in a bag of frozen peas and drove to the hospital to have it reattached.
“He also loved anything ancient, old, medieval, or Baroque, and always was looking for another collectible for his beautiful home. He was also an avid sports fan, especially the New York Yankees and Mets.”
As his illness began to take over and he knew his time was limited, my source tells me Dio reaffirmed his bonds with what was really important to him in life.
“The final months were spent squeezing every good moment out of life that he could,” they told me. “He even accepted an award and set up a lifetime achievement award on VH-1’s Golden Gods of Rock awards only a month before his death. You would never even have guessed that he was sick. He worked with his cousin, Dave Fierstein, on a final song written for all his fans, called Metal Will Never Die…it is available on the album, The Very Beast of Dio II.”
So in addition to leaving behind a legacy of fantastic metal, the man known as Ronnie James Dio is testament to the fact that it can be so easy to pigeonhole someone into a caricature of their true selves, when the real person is often someone much deeper, much more fragile…and human.
“Even though he was the voice of metal and the one credited for inventing the “Horns Up” sign, which you can even see at a Britney Spears, Lady GaGa, or Justin Beiber concert these days, He was ALWAYS a true gentleman, humble to a fault. He was super intelligent, the most caring individual you could ever meet, and one of the best Italian chefs to ever live. When the band would be stuck for months during rehearsal and production of albums, nobody ever went hungry, because Ronnie was always in the kitchen, making something delicious and healthy to eat. His favorite food was Lamb Vindaloo curry.
“Another big thing that I hope most people know now is that Ronnie, even though there are pictures of demons on his albums, was NEVER a Satanist. He was brought up Catholic, but saw the light, and abandoned organized religion altogether. He was very spiritual, but in a bit of a nonconventional, new way. The fact is, we really don’t know what’s out there until we pass on into the cosmic consciousness and find out, so nothing can be discounted. All religious beliefs are valid, as long as they are positive and life affirming until proven otherwise. To quote Ronnie’s song, We Rock, ‘We pray to someone, and when it’s said and done, it’s really all the same, just got a different name…’
“Yesterday would have been Ronnie’s 71st birthday. Lots of us celebrated in our own ways. I got a package from management with the latest deluxe release of the Magica album with a vintage T-shirt left over from the tour. It is almost like he reached out of the grave to just say ‘hi’ with the package arriving on his birthday and all.
“But then it IS Ronnie, and everything he ever did was magickal….”
I feel very fortunate to have been given the opportunity to see such a personal side to one of my musical heroes growing up, and I was excited to be able to pass on a bit of Dio’s humanity on to my readers!